In Victorian times there was far less artificial light than today. The Brontës, like their contemporaries, would have been more aware of the night sky than the majority of modern readers, and not surprisingly their writings often mention it. Apart from their many references to the moon, all three sisters describe the planet Venus. It is clear that they write from observation. Charlotte and Anne go further still, seeking to describe the planet as she would have appeared on particular dates. Venus, for example, appears in Emily's earliest extant poem:
Cold clear and blue the morning heaven
Expands its arch on high
Cold and clear Lake Werna's water
Reflects that winter's sky
The moon has set but Venus shines
A silent silvery star.
Dawn is approaching, the Moon has set, and Venus shines as a morning star. Elsewhere Emily writes of "the glorious star of love," which we may also assume to be Venus.
Venus may appear either as a morning star, before dawn, or as an evening star, after sunset, alternating between these two modes over a period of nineteen months. Emily has described her as a morning star and she appears as an evening star in novels by Charlotte and Anne.
Charlotte confirms that the "star of love" is Venus in the final chapter of Shirley:
She surveyed the dusk moors, where bonfires were kindling: the summer-evening was warm; the bell-music was joyous; the blue smoke of the fires looked soft; their red flame bright; above them, in the sky whence the sun had vanished, twinkled a silver point — the Star of Love. . . .
"I am looking at Venus, mamma: see, she is beautiful. How white her lustre is, compared with the deep red of the bonfires!"
Charlotte gives an exact date for this description: 18th June, 1812. The brightness of Venus varies during her 19-month cycle. At her brightest she is particularly spectacular. (Today when Venus reaches maximum brightness as an evening star there are usually members of the public who report a UFO!) At the end of June 1812 she reached her maximum brightness in the evening sky. Given clear skies on the evening in question Venus would have been a spectacular sight on the evening in question. Those with access to copies of Leeds Mercury for 1811 and 12, which Charlotte used in writing Shirley, will be able to determine whether this apparition of Venus was mentioned in the relevant issues or whether she drew her information from another source. In all events it Charlotte seems to have based her description on an actual astronomical event.
Anne also describes Venus as evening star in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
"I . . . was looking out upon the west, where the darkening hills rose sharply defined against the clear amber light of evening, that gradually blended and faded away into the pure, pale blue of the upper sky, where one bright star was shining through, as if to promise — 'When that dying light is gone, the world will not be left in darkness, and they who trust in God, whose minds are unbeclouded by the mists of unbelief and sin, are never wholly comfortless.'"
This scene is set in or around the latter part of September 1826. Venus was a bright evening star approaching her maximum distance from the Sun. She would reach this maximum distance in the middle of October and her greatest brightness late in November. For the most part these conditions generally make for excellent sightings of Venus, such as Anne describes.
This rule-of-thumb must be treated with some caution, for when these conditions occur in Autumn Venus may set quite soon — less than an hour — after the Sun. It's not quite clear whether Venus was shining in the amber or in the blue part of the sky nor does Anne specify how far the hills project above the horizon. If the hills weren't too high, or too close, and there were no clouds, Venus may well have shone brightly in the amber part of the sky for a short period after sunset.
Elsewhere in the novel Anne describes the moon at certain phases on specific dates, and the phases given are accurate for the dates in question. We must conclude that Anne was doing her best to be accurate with Venus, although she, or someone else, may have been applying rule-of-thumb to the sort of brief data for Venus which might have appeared in an almanac.
All the sisters were inspired by the planet, as a symbol of love, human or divine. They wrote from observation, taking care to ensure that the symbolism attached to Venus was linked to actual physical appearances of the planet. In accord with age-old tradition poetic inspiration was mediated through the visible heavens.
Note: Calculations were carried out using the GreyStel Star Atlas and a programme supplied by Jan Meuss.
Brontë, Emily Jane. The Complete Poems. ed Janet Gezari. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1992.
Grey, Ian. The GreyStel Star Atlas. Pershore, Worcs, UK: 1995.
last modified 5 July 2000